Levels and Ways of Knowing in
The Wings of the Dove
HENRY JAMES’s CHARACTERS ARE PRODUCTS OF THEIR SOCIAL worlds in a way that Austen’s and Eliot’s are not. Moreover, rather than learning to recognize a moral reality that is already present, James’s characters must strive to create a moral reality for themselves. Whereas Anne Elliot’s character is exemplary, despite the nature of her family, and despite the social role of a single woman in her society, a Jamesian character has no such transcendence of his or her social or personal identity. Dorothea Brooke’s life is far more complex than Anne Elliot’s is; yet, the moral reality she finds is one that the narrator has all along herself known. Indeed, moral values are very much at issue in The Wings of the Dove; however, since the actors and acts are all subject to their social circumstances as well as to their individual character, the moral nature of many acts is opaque. The reader has no sense of the firmly held moral truths that one has in Persuasion, nor does one have a narrator who has definitive answers to the ponderous moral questions that weigh heavily throughout the novel.
James’s tremendous contribution to realism is undisputed. Although his popularity waned after his death, the New Critics and the Parisian Reviewers brought him into the canon of academic study, where he has stayed. In his own time, he received such praise as his friend and colleague William Dean Howells accorded to him: “No other novelist, except George Eliot, has dealt so largely in analysis of motive, has so fully explained and commented upon the springs of action in the persons of the drama, both before and after the facts.”1 In James’s later years, living in Sussex, England, other writer friends—Conrad, Wells, Ford, Crane and Kipling—all recognized his mastery and authority.2 This confirmation of not only his singular contributions to fiction writing, but also his transatlantic